Friday, September 19, 2014

Wow, You’ve Got Something There! – Health Overload from Shishinori

Welcome, Namaste.
Shishinori: so healthy,
Very Vancouver.

In my quest to find a reasonable facsimile of the Poke I had on the North Shore of Oahu, I travelled to Shishinori.  Located on the Cambie corridor near the City Hall skytrain station, this new eatery is minimally furnished with touches of Japanese cuteness, including an anime show that is projected on the back wall.

I was interested in trying their Hawaii Ahi Poke bowl which came with 3 flavour options: Shoyu, Spicy and Wasabi.  I went with the shoyu option, up sized my bowl to a meal, paid for my order, was given a number and patiently waited for my meal to come to my table.

Upon its arrival, I was pleasantly surprised by the portion and presentation.  It looked appetizing and I had an overwhelming sense of smugness that I made a very healthy food choice today. 

The bowl came with a large green salad comprised of spinach and watercress, a poke served on brown rice, and garnishes comprised of fruit and edamame.  To complete my meal, I was given a mushroom miso soup and iced green tea in a mason jar.

The miso soup and tea were good but not really noteworthy.  The star of the meal was the bowls themselves.

The shoyu Hawaiian Poke looked right with fresh chunks of pink Ahi tuna, seaweed, chopped green onions and sesame seeds.  However with the first bite, I knew it was not exactly what I had in Hawaii.  The shoyu flavouring tasted more like a teriyaki sauce than just a plain soy sauce.  Although salty, it was predominantly sweet, and a bit too much in taste and amount. 

I felt Shishinori used this sauce as a way to add flavor to the brown rice and to the bowl in general.  The remaining elements of the bowl rely predominantly on their own natural flavours as the salad is minimally dressed and the other elements (mango slice, avocado, edamame etc) are not enhanced with anything.

Despite the disappointing poke, I did enjoy my very healthy meal.  I like the inclusion of spicy watercress and the sweet slices of mangos.  I felt super good after finishing my meal.

A few weeks later, I felt I needed a food detox and decided to visit Shishinori again.  I ordered the Salmon Paradise bowl meal, after the server explained that it was cubes of salmon mixed with seasonal fruit and served with a dressing.  All I thought to myself, “Isn’t that a Salmon Poke?!?!”

Indeed it was somewhat like a Salmon Poke, mixed with cubes of apples and avocado, served with a heaping amount of spinach salad, half a soft boiled egg, brown rice, and fruit and edamame garnishes.  Once again it looked overwhelmingly good for you, chalk full of vitamins and antioxidants. 

Unfortunately that cloying sauce returned in salmon portion of the bowl.  Although the rich taste of the salmon, and natural sweet and tart flavour of apple were able to stand up to the teriyaki like sauce and shine a bit.

Alas, my search for Hawaiian Poke must continue.  However, despite the sauce, this was not the worst rendition I’ve had.  There’s an eatery out there with dish identification issues, as they use an acid in their version which essential makes it a ceviche not a Poke, despite what the menu says.

Essentially the two items I got at Shishinori were giant vibrant salads served with brown rice and a raw protein.  In both cases I liked the freshness of the ingredients, how each of the components worked well together and the overall presentation of the dishes.  I just wish the staff would switch to a light soy dressing instead of depending on that syrupy sweet sauce. 

Perhaps it’s the vision of the rich hues of colour on the plate, the crunchy texture of the veggies, or the fact you probably ate half the daily recommended serving of plant matter in one sitting, I did feel energized, had a bounce in my step, felt very zen and light.

I would definitely return for a healthy meal and since its nearby neighbours are Whole Foods and Lululemon Lab, I think Shishinori will do just fine.

Shishinori on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Wonton Mein Saga: Tsim Chai Noodles Shrimp Pork Hybrid Wontons

Shrimp and Pork Wontons?
Blasphemy? Nope, delicious
At Tsim Chai Noodles.

Recently, I made an impromptu trip to Richmond after work and ending up visiting an old favourite for lunch.  It had been a long time since I went to Tsim Chai Noodles near the Richmond Public Market.

I sat down in its no fuss dinning room and ordered my customary wonton noodles with veggies for a complete meal. 

The soup was a good superior broth with an impactful seafood taste and full of umami flavour.  The noodles were toothsome and had a nice texture to them.  I felt these noodles were cooked perfectly as they stayed relatively chewy throughout my meal.

In a bit a of a switch up, for the healthy & green portion of my lunch I got Yu Choy, instead of the more common Gai Lan or the dreaded Iceberg lettuce.  The leafy veggies were vibrant green and cooked until tender but not mushy.

As for the wontons, they were properly wrapped, sizable and cooked well.  For the filling, they had both shrimp and fatty pork to them. 

When you bite into these soup dumplings you get a wave of sesame oil and a strong shrimp flavour. However towards the end, there’s a rich fatty pork taste.

Overall, I liked these wontons a lot as nothing tasted watered down, and the 3 distinct flavours of the dumpling worked harmoniously.

For some, the inclusion of pork is a big no-no in wontons, but for me I actually prefer some chopped pork as long as it’s not the dominant feature.  When done right like Tsim Chai, the pork adds a subtle contrasting taste that helps break up the large amount of seafood flavour in wontons.
If you think about it, wonton noodles soup can be pretty monotonous in flavour with a heavy shrimp component in the soup and then the bountiful shrimp in the dumplings.  As a result, the inclusion of pork can break up that wall of seafood umami while not being too jarring as it’s a nice mild sweet white meat.

I really enjoyed my wonton noodle soup at Tsim Chai Noodles; so much so I think they are my preferred wonton noodles soup in the Lower Mainland.  After finishing my meal there, I wondered why it took so long for me to return.  

Tsim Chai Noodles 沾仔記 on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Wow, You’ve Got Something There! – Shoyu Ramen From Yah Yah Ya

UPDATE - PLEASE NOTE:  Ooops, I made a huge BOO BOO.  It turns out that the special broth from Yokohama is called "iekei" not "lekei or Le Kei".  My sincere apologies to Yah Yah Ya ramen.  Still very good ramen and everybody should go try this place out!

Yah Yah Ya? Hell Yeah!

Yummy Le Kei broth Ramen.

Weird, not in West End.


There are general geographical food rules of thumb I follow and as a result I have enjoyed pretty good meals even when I go into a restaurant blind.  For example, eat Vietnamese east of Main Street in Vancouver.  Another one would be: Best Ramen found in Downtown Vancouver. 

There are exceptions to the rule but they are hard to find.  Recently I discovered a fantastic exception to the ramen rule in Richmond called Yah Yah Ya.

The name of this newly opened ramenya just brings a smile to my face.  Even before they opened, I had heard the owners were trying to bring something new to market: Le Kei Broth.  The broth and style of ramen originates from the city of Yokohama.  The Le Kei broth is similar to a Tonkotsu broth but what makes it distinct is the inclusion of soy sauce and sometimes chicken bones during simmering process.

In addition, the ramen featuring Le Kei broth also comes with chicken oil and is traditionally served with roasted nori and spinach.

Keenly I headed off to Richmond to try this new Le Kei broth.  Yah Yah Ya is located in Richmond’s many restaurant filled strip malls.  The space is small much like most ramenyas in the region and neatly decorated.

Much like Kintaro, there are some customizable options such as desired texture of the noodle, richness of the broth and the amount of oil added to the ramen. 

I ordered their proclaimed number one ramen, Shoyu Ramen, which comes with nori, spinach, pork chasu and half an Ajitsuke Tamago.  To make the ramen to my liking, I went with hard noodles, normal soup and the normal amount of oil.  In addition, I ordered a plate of gyoza as well.   

First, the oil is noticeable taste wise at the beginning of your meal.  It adds an initial layer of richness, which dissipates as the amount of oil diminishes as it coats each strand of al dente noodle you draw out of the bowl. 

The Le Kei broth was awesome.  It has the depth and complexity of a long simmered broth but tastes light and sweet.  It’s been a while since I’ve encountered a soup so delicious all I wanted was to drink every last drop.

The pork chasu was fork tender but when consumed on its own I felt it was bland.  However when it was combined with some Le Kei broth, the chasu perked up and had a stronger umami flavour.

I also found the traditional spinach noteworthy as well.  It wasn’t just a component utilized to add texture to the dish.  Although the spinach did add crunch, it also lent its ferrous flavour to the soup as well.  By the end of the meal, I could detect a spinach taste in the soup.

The gyoza I ordered was solidly executed.  Based on the ridging, they appeared to be handmade.  The skins had a slight chew and the filling had a pleasant flavour highlighted by a strong ginger taste.  I also liked that you get to mix your own dipping sauce for these pan fried dumplings.  The staff brings out white vinegar, sesame seeds, soy and chilli oil for you to use.

Overall I really enjoyed my meal at Yah Yah Ya.  I felt the shoyu ramen was fantastic.  I felt the different components of the dish really supported and complimented one another, yielding a complex and tasty ramen.  For me it’s worth trekking out to Richmond to have a bowl of ramen steeped in Le Kei broth.

Yah Yah Ya Ramen on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Wow, you’ve got something there! Almond Crunch & Oreo Cream Puff from Chewy Junior

Cream puffs called Chewy Junior;
Too close to my work.

Beard Papas has some company now.  Chewy Junior, hailing from the city state of Singapore, has arrived in Vancouver.

Located at the western edge of Gastown across from Steamworks, Chewy Junior finally opened its doors in late August. 

I was curious about these Singaporean cream puffs as I walked past the renovating space for months looking at the posters featuring their confections.  They seemed more complex than Beard Papas but not as polished as Beta5’s elevated, highfaluting versions. 

So on a particularly rough work week, I needed some treats to get me through and it resulted in me eating 4 varieties of Chewy Junior’s offerings.

This shop currently serves 2 kinds of cream puffs: chocolate dipped and not chocolate dipped.

On my first visit I went with one of each: Oreo and Blueberry Cream Cheese.
Overall both types are not very big, measuring 3 inches in diameter and between 1.5 inches – 2 inches in height.

The Oreo cream puff is a chocolate dipped type.  The Oreo crumb coating is adhered to the top of the pastry by a thin layer of chocolate, hence why they are referred to as chocolate dipped. 

Inside the slightly chewy choux pastry, a cocoa infused whipped cream can be found.  I was worried all this chocolate would be too sweet for me.  However I actually quite enjoyed the Oreo.  I found the elements of the unsweetened filling, slightly bitter Oreo crumbs and under coat of sweet chocolate complemented each other very well, resulting in tasty cream puff.

The Blueberry Cream Cheese cream puff was topped with glazed blueberries encircled with a tangy cream cheese ring.  Within, instead of a chocolate whipped cream, a Chantilly cream was deployed.  Personally I found the Chantilly cream too sweet for my liking. 

Also, I understand the cream cheese is used as barrier to prevent the blueberry topping from slipping off the pastry (you can see what happens when I attempt to cut the thing in half - there were issues).  However, I found the tanginess of the cream cheese a bit odd.

On my second visit, I went with 2 chocolate dipped cream puffs: the Almond Crunch and the Double Chocolate Crunch.

The Almond Crunch had wafer thin slices of toasted almonds covering the top of the cream puff.  Much like the Oreo, the almonds were “glued” on with a layer of chocolate and used the same cocoa whipped cream.  Since I like almonds, I really enjoyed the Almond Crunch.  I felt the all the components were present, lent their distinct flavours to the sweet snack and were in harmony with one another.

The other cream puff I purchased, the Double Chocolate Crunch, was too boring for me.  The pastry was dipped in chocolate and topped with white and milk chocolate coated round crunchies.  With the chocolate infused whipped cream, chocolate layer and chocolate crunchies, there was no contrasting flavour.  I guess if you love chocolate this may be the puff for you but for me I just found it too plain.

Overall, I liked the Almond Crunch and Oreo Chewy Junior due to the varying and complementary flavours found within each preparation.  I can see people questioning the value of these cream puffs.  However, for people like me who only have a moderate sweet tooth, Chewy Junior is perfectly satisfying.

Chewy Junior's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

WTH! Crummy Execution at Ramen Koika

A jack of all trades,
Often a master of none;
No time to focus.

With great expectation, I eagerly waited for the opening of Ramen Koika, getting regular updates from my friends who work at St. Paul’s hospital.

The owners were taking their time with the space, appointing it with beautiful artwork and dark wood.  For me it was good sign, since it showed attention to detail.

There was a soft open and special deal to get the neighborhood acquainted with the place.  I waited so that they could work out the kinks from their food and service.

There was a small fuss made about the chefs manning the kitchen not being Japanese but I don’t put too much stock on ethnicity impacting a person’s ability to cook well.  To be honest, I often find it a lazy argument.  If you have passion for food, and take the time to hone and learn your craft, one can cook anything well.  Chefs Alex Tung and Alex Chen prove that. 

Also the last time I checked, Chef Gordon Ramsey is not French yet he can prepare world class French cuisine.  In short, if a chef serves something subpar, they just suck at cooking and focusing on the details to make a dish wonderful; it has nothing to do with their cultural background.

With this in mind, I and a few fellow food enthusiasts descended onto Koika.  Upon opening the menu I spotted some red flags.  Koika had a giant menu with 9 ramens and 2 different soups, chicken and pork (presumably tonkotsu).  I think the most concerning thing for me was the 2 soup broths.  It’s hard to tailor and simmer ONE soup that’s balanced yet intensely flavourful but to try to do two is very ambitious.

I went with the fusion King Ramen served with their pork hard boiled broth, found in the Smoky Wok Cuisine section of the menu.  I call it fusion because stir frying the toppings in a wok is decidedly a Chinese technique which can lead very tasty results. 

Unfortunately the wok created smokiness or “Wok Hei” was very strong and overwhelming.  Coupled with a weak one note pork broth that couldn’t match the intensity of the "Wok Hei", my King Ramen was too monotone and dull in taste even with all the ingredients served.  Adding to the problem was the poor execution of the noodles.  They didn’t have any kansui taste, were too much like Chinese noodles and were soft despite ordering the “hard” option.

The overall consensus at the table was the ramens served at Ramen Koika were not up to par.  Overall, all the various dishes ordered had similar execution issues I experienced.  The soup was bland and didn’t have a concentrated flavor one would expect from a well prepared broth.  The noodles were not prepared as ordered, arriving soft without a chewy texture.  

However the home made gyozas, verified by the distinct ridging displayed on each dumpling, were tasty.

Fast forward a few weeks, I was reading up on ramen when I came across the Champon Ramen from the coastal city of Nagasaki.  This unique style of ramen is old school, like late 1800s, fusion of Chinese and Japanese techniques.  Created by a Chinese shop owner, he fried up pork and vegetables, and placed them on top of a bowl of noodles he had cooked directly in the broth.  

Over the years, seafood was added to this Sino-Japanese concoction evolving into a hallmark dish for the Japanese port city.

Ring any bells?  It did for me and I immediately went onto the Ramen Koika website.  There it was, Champon Ramen.  As far as I was aware, this Davie street ramenya is the only one serving this specialty in the city.

I was actually hopeful given my initial experience at Ramen Koika.  Factoring in that some time had passed enabling the kitchen staff to refine their execution, I thought, "Perhaps, they could hit this out of the park and create a great version of this seafood ramen".

Well my second visit yielded mixed results.  First the improvements, the service was much more friendly and attentive.  The “Wok Hei” was dialed back significantly to a much more balanced level.  The noodles were tastier and took on the flavor of the soup, so perhaps per tradition the staff is cooking the noodles directly in the broth?

However, they were still past al dente even though I ordered hard.  The soup had a bit more character as some of the fried peppers and starch from the noodles imparted their flavor to the liquid.  Unfortunately, the soup was still quite one dimensional and not very impactful.

The biggest issue was the seafood.  The mussels were bland and gritty.  While eating the Champon ramen, I got the occasional mouthful that had a jarring sandiness to them.  I’m not sure if it came from the scallops or the mussels but it didn’t create an enjoyable experience.  

The prawns were cooked well except they had their shells on.  I would have liked it if the staff had peeled and de-veined the crustaceans to help make the dish easier and less messy to eat.

My follow-up visit was a bit better than my first but overall it was still very lackluster.  The kitchen is missing the mark on executing key components, the noodles and soup, well.  With the standard bearers of awesome ramen in Vancouver only a 15 minute stroll northwest of Koika, I think next time I want ramen I'm just going to keep on walking.

Ramen Koika on Urbanspoon